Unlike any other genre, science fiction is specifically in the business of keeping our eyes on the horizon, constantly imagining what tomorrow might look like, and what we as a species need to do to get there (or avoid getting there, depending on how bleak the predictions are). Over the decades science fiction stories have predicted everything from broad social movements to specific bits of technology (sometimes disturbingly so). Of course, they don’t always get it right, or I’d be writing this from my lunar apartment before taking my flying car over to the spaceport for my vacation to Alpha Centauri.
The very act of writing science fiction is inherently a predictive art form, even if you’re just trying to tell a ripping good yarn. Occasionally, however, some of the genre’s luminaries have set out specifically to try and second-guess the future. The legendary Robert Heinlein did just that way back in 1949, penning a list of predictions for the year 2000. It was eventually published in Galaxy magazine in 1952. Now, the website Lists of Note has posted Heinlein’s predictions. With 2000 now over a decade in our rearview, how well did Heinlein’s predictions turn out? Let’s take a look at the list, and we’ll track his success as we go.
1. Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door — C.O.D. It’s yours when you pay for it.
Man, I wish this was true. Sadly, our space program is in pretty dire straits at the moment. And while we may be exploring the galaxy with incredibly powerful telescopes, the dream of manned interplanetary travel being readily available seems as far away as ever.
2. Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure.
This one’s kind of vague, but there’s little doubt that it’s proven true in a variety of ways.
3. The most important military fact of this century is that there is no way to repel an attack from outer space.
Well, that’s probably true…but it also hasn’t really been an issue thus far. For all Reagan’s enthusiasm for the Star Wars program, we’re still much more concerned about attacks from this side of the atmosphere.
4. It is utterly impossible that the United States will start a “preventive war.” We will fight when attacked, either directly or in a territory we have guaranteed to defend.
5. In fifteen years the housing shortage will be solved by a “breakthrough” into new technologies which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies.
Again, it’s unclear exactly what he was envisioning, but it’s also apparent that this one is a long, long way from coming true.
6. We’ll all be getting a little hungry by and by.
I just ate dinner, Rob, so I’m good. Assuming he’s referring to food shortages, well, that’s one problem we still haven’t solved in many parts of the world.
7. The cult of the phony in art will disappear. So-called “modern art” will be discussed only by psychiatrists.
I guess that really depends on what you consider “modern art.” But I think this one landed pretty wide of the mark by most interpretations.
8. Freud will be classed as a pre-scientific, intuitive pioneer and psychoanalysis will be replaced by a growing, changing “operational psychology” based on measurement and prediction.
I’m afraid I’m not well versed enough in the state of modern psychology to comment, but certainly Freud’s work is still widely used.
9. Cancer, the common cold, and tooth decay will all be conquered; the revolutionary new problem in medical research will be to accomplish “regeneration,” i.e., to enable a man to grow a new leg, rather than fit him with an artificial limb.
Sadly, he’s zero for three on the first part of this prediction, even though science is continually finding more efficient ways to battle various types of cancer. As for “regeneration,” that’s an area where the cutting-edge science is both awesome and awesomely bizarre. We might just see this one in our lifetime.
10. By the end of this century mankind will have explored this solar system, and the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be a-building.
I’m too depressed about this one to comment.
11. Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision.
Handbag? Try your hip pocket, Bob.
12. Intelligent life will be found on Mars.
Marvin has remained conspicuously absent. It makes me very angry.
13. A thousand miles an hour at a cent a mile will be commonplace; short hauls will be made in evacuated subways at extreme speed.
Clearly, Mr. Heinlein hasn’t tried to fill his gas tank recently.
14. A major objective of applied physics will be to control gravity.
That’d be nice, but things have instead gotten considerably weirder than that.
15. We will not achieve a “World State” in the predictable future. Nevertheless, Communism will vanish from this planet.
Right on the first part so far. And Communism has seen better days, but it certainly hasn’t vanished from the planet.
16. Increasing mobility will disenfranchise a majority of the population. About 1990 a constitutional amendment will do away with state lines while retaining the semblance.
Not even close. We’re certainly more mobile, but we’re also anything but unified.
17. All aircraft will be controlled by a giant radar net run on a continent-wide basis by a multiple electronic “brain.”
Not yet. Much to Skynet’s chagrin.
18. Fish and yeast will become our principal sources of proteins. Beef will be a luxury; lamb and mutton will disappear.
Nothing says “luxury” like a McBurger.
19. Mankind will not destroy itself, nor will “Civilization” be destroyed.
So far, so good…knock on wood.
Finally, we’ll leave you with Heinlein’s list of things he didn’t think would happen “soon, if ever.”
- Travel through time
- Travel faster than the speed of light
- “Radio” transmission of matter.
- Manlike robots with manlike reactions
- Laboratory creation of life
- Real understanding of what “thought” is and how it is related to matter.
- Scientific proof of personal survival after death.
- Nor a permanent end to war.